It’s Only January, But…

01/21/2009 12:00 AM |

In a music industry depressed long before the rest of the world caught up, an alternate currency has slowly emerged wherein the intensity of opinions directed at a record has replaced sales in determining which releases are now “the biggest.” No record will go platinum on pronouncements in 2009 quicker than Animal
Collective’s eighth studio album, Merriweather Post Pavilion. Since word of its impending existence surfaced, thousands of message board pages have spilled into the void, the band’s devoted-going-on-deranged fan base screaming at the heavens that they couldn’t listen to it, like, now. One misguided soul hacked a band member’s email, disseminating a fraudulent note of support for the record’s early leak. Once out of the bag, it was quickly declared the best cat ever in enviably uniform critical gushes. The skeptic set couldn’t help but call bullshit on the hubbub, snickering at saps flocking to Craigslist with hundreds in hand to see their hipster/hippie heroes drone away.

Vehement detractors of the record itself seem a bit dazed though, with many of their objections to Animal Collective stamped “2004.” Through a decade of dogged tinkering, Animal Collective has refined their vocal ululations into a formidable melodic force and replaced occasionally aimless folk plinking with an organically sleek neon throb. The odd singularity of their vision likely precludes a true mainstream crossover, but a record as warm and accomplished as Merriweather Post Pavilion can hardly be called alienating.

It’s subversively funny that a band that came to prominence on the strength of its youthful joie de vivre and inscrutable experimentation should gain scores of young fans by making a record this plainly focused on commitment and familial responsibility. MPP’s relative clarity confirms growing hints that the band’s great theme is domestic bliss and its mundane side effects. Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox hits one of the record’s highest heights with “My Girls,” a euphoric song that drips devotion for his wife and child. Over a radiating synth progression that’s patterned after Frankie Knuckles’ club track “Your Love,” Panda makes house music about the pride of being able to provide one. Throughout the record, worries about spending so much time on the road and growing into proper role models are forthrightly articulated. If traditional rock instruments are increasingly missing from the band’s songs, so are the form’s most persistent hedonistic themes.  

Baltimore transplants, Animal Collective have never made total sense as a New York City group. Previous eras produced bands like Suicide that sought to reflect urban ugliness, or those, like Sonic Youth, who seemed uniquely hatched from its mix of fine art influences. AC’s early records seemed to want to skip town entirely, fleeing for (and maybe smoking some) greenery. Smuggling unhip pastoral folk into avant garde arrangements was — until 2007’s uneven but partly thrilling harbinger Strawberry Jam — the band’s signature.

“Summertime Clothes” might finally be their great city anthem.  Sleepless, sticky and suffering through a humid night, Dave “Avey Tare” Portner celebrates the surreal serenity of empty early morning streets when faced with a hand to hold. Every ineffable electronic component of the song rushes forward, a herd of sound rather than a mere wall.

Despite down-to-earth themes, it remains head-scratchingly difficult to discern how this music came to be. While his bandmates split the majority of critical renown, Brian “Geologist” Weitz is pivotal to the continuing illusion that this is music built upon a series of tiny nothings. The warped found sounds, mangled samples and general clatter around the songs’ edges have been a through-line from formative acoustic noodling to the percolating synth loops of the band’s current style. He acts like a flashy gesture drawing the eye away from more subtle sleight-of-hand.  

“Lion in a Coma” finds Avey neurotically fretting that they won’t be able to keep up this restless musical adventurism forever. With Merriweather Post Pavilion under their belt, it hardly matters. Having kids and growing old aren’t things unique to each successive generation, but when they’re happening to you it’s wondrous all the same. Animal Collective captures that self-obsessed disconnect better than anyone in memory. This is easily their best set of songs.